On Thursday, Phillips staged its marquee contemporary evening sale with a night of superior results led by staple talents like Joan Mitchell and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The sale comes on the heels of a five-hour-long global evening sale livestreamed at Sotheby’s three days earlier that garnered a total in excess of $360 million, securing the market long-awaited reassurance following the pandemic’s overhaul of the traditional auction schedule. The evening’s hour-long sale brought 25 lots led by auctioneer Henry Highley, and saw an overall 100 percent sell-through; the auction realized a total of $41 million, meeting the high estimate. The day sale total rang in at $10.2 million, sold 87 percent by lot.
The leading lot of the night was Joan Mitchell’s canvas Noël, featuring the artist’s thick, impasto drip field scheme from the early 1960s, consigned from an American collection. The painting met its reserve at $8 million quickly, but drew only six bids to meet its estimate of $9.5 million at the hammer ($11.1 million with buyer’s premium). In a press conference following the auction, Robert Manley dubbed the work “an auctioneer’s dream.” He noted that two bidders ultimately competed for the work, calling the end result a “knockout painting, for a knockout price.” The historic work came to market after nearly three decades in the same hands. The seller bought it in 1995 and the Phillips sale marks its auction debut. The painting’s outstanding result follows the sale of the storied Ginny Williams collection at Sotheby’s that reopened the market with aggressive remote bidding on Monday, bringing in new records for female postwar stars like Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler, who have long been undervalued compared to their male contemporaries.
In the post-sale press conference, the executive team expressed relief at the market activity seen this week. “Tonight’s sale was a resounding statement about the strength and resilience of our market,” said Phillips CEO Edward Dolman, claiming the results show a pent-up demand for art as a result of the pandemic. “There is a significant amount of money on the sidelines waiting for a chance to get back into the art market and invest in art,” added Dolman, who noted that, although the numbers grossed in today’s total are lower than those seen in previous years due to seller concerns in the wake of the global pandemic, the “message to consignors is, this is the time to sell.”
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s colossal work on paper Victor 25448, at 6 by 11 feet, drew only tepid results with four bids between Robert Manley, deputy chairman and worldwide co-head of 20th century and contemporary art, and Meity Heiden, Phillips deputy chairwoman and head of private sales. The painting hammered at its low estimate of $8 million ($9.25 million with buyer’s premium), well below its high of $12 million. The sale comes on the heels of strong demand for Basquiat’s works on paper, which saw a new record at Sotheby’s June 29 auction, where his Untitled (Head) realized a price of $15.2 million. The two top lots at Phillips seem to have faced a challenge, having come to market after the Sotheby’s sales that in part satisfied demand for similar works by both Mitchell and Basquiat.
Frankenthaler’s 1967 canvas Head of the Meadow was among the night’s success stories, easily outdoing an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000 when it hammered at $2.5 million ($3 million with buyer’s premium). It set an artist record second only to the $7.9 million achieved for Royal Fireworks in the Sotheby’s sale, tying with the record for Blue Reach (1978) that sold at Sotheby’s in May 2018.
“We’ve never had a business-getting season like this season,” said Manley in a statement. “We’ve learned a lot of lessons from the online sales and private sales,” he noted, claiming the sale was intentional in its targeting of younger contemporary artists, Black artists, and women artists, and adding, “I feel we bet on the right voices.”
George Condo’s 2009 Stump Head fetched $1.1 million to land at the low end of its expectation of $900,000 to $1.2 million. Colombian artist Fernando Botero’s large-scale outdoor sculpture of a woman consigned from a private collection in Beverly Hills brought in $1 million against an estimate of $800,000 to $1.2 million. Works from the postwar era saw less demand against the contemporary cutting edge. Postwar painter and pillar of African American art history Charles White’s 1958 drawing Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child brought in $850,000, below its low estimate. Francis Picabia’s Portrait de femme from the early 1940s reached its high estimate when it sold for $350,000.
Elsewhere in the sale, Sturtevant, known for her appropriations of famous art historical works, saw her Stella Gran Cairo, a riff on Frank Stella’s geometric works, come in at $620,000, surpassing its high estimate of $600,000.
Other points in the sale brought young talent fresh off the primary market to the auction’s global audience, establishing three new records for emerging names. Dolman noted the sale showed an “extraordinary thirst for the young and the new that seems undimmed” among the collector base. Matthew Wong’s 2018 Mood Room presented a rare opportunity for buyers to secure a work hard-won in the marketplace. The late artist, who was nearing the brink of stardom before his suicide in October 2019, saw a staggering new record in Sotheby’s contemporary auction on Monday, when his Realm of Appearances, which also featured in his first solo show in New York, at Karma gallery in 2018, sold for $1.82 million, besting its high estimate of $80,000 by more than 22 times. Mood Room was consigned by a collector based in Aspen and sold for $848,000 (with buyer’s premium), more than 10 times its high estimate $80,000. “Given the scarcity of works on the primary market, collectors have eagerly turned to the secondary market to acquire works by the artist,” said Amanda Lo Iacono, Phillips head of evening sale in New York in an interview, adding that Mood Room “draws particular allusions with Matisse, which makes it appealing to modern and contemporary collectors alike.”
Lucas Arrada’s neutral gray canvas from 2014 went to an online buyer in Switzerland, selling for $350,000 (with buyer’s premium), double its high estimate of $120,000.
A painting by 34-year-old American artist Christina Quarles called Placed, which the seller purchased in 2017, the same year it was completed, saw competitive demand, drawing 18 bids and hammering at $320,000 against an estimate of $70,000 to $100,000, to set a new record for the artist. The previous $275,000 record was set at Phillips New York in 2019 with the sale of Moon.
A work by Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, a Ghana-born, Oregon-based figurative painter who is a close friend of Boafo, marked the artist’s auction debut at Phillips. Shade of Black, made in 2018, went for $250,000, outdoing its low estimate of $20,000 by 12 times. Bennett Roberts, sole representative of Quaicoe and co-owner of Los Angeles gallery Roberts Projects (where the artist made his American debut in the solo show Black Like Me this past January), expressed frustration with market flipping in an interview. The dealer confirmed he would be asking $15,000 to $20,000 for a painting of the same size and subject matter.
Quaicoe is not Roberts’s only artist who saw demand in the Phillips auction; Amoako Boafo, to whom Roberts also gave his first solo show resurfaced in the evening sale session as well, with a strong result. Boafo, whose painting The Lemon Bathing Suit set his record at more than $800,000 during the Phillips New Now sale this past February, was also among the emerging names to see competitive bidding. His newly made 2019 portrait Joy in Purple brought in $668,000, besting its estimate of $50,000 to $70,000. In a string of serendipity, Kehinde Wiley, with whom Roberts began working in 2000, first introduced the dealer to Boafo, who eventually introduced the dealer to his friend and fellow painter, Quaicoe. Roberts confirmed the two artists worked side by side for years while studying in Ghana.
“What does it mean for an artist?” Roberts asked, about the secondary-market results, noting the critical point when the auction price—if it comes before the artist has had a solo show in New York—moves up the threshold prematurely. “That ends up being a really bad metric,” he said.
“Was I shocked? Yes,” the dealer said regarding the staggering figure for Quaicoe’s work in Thursday night’s sale. “It’s way too early. I think it’s by virtue of his magnificent talent. He didn’t just spring out, he had many years of painting where no one cared at all, he couldn’t get a studio visit, they had no attention paid to him.”
Noting the aggressive market interest in Black and African artists as “a new phenomenon,” Roberts added that the high market numbers are a separate concern from the artist’s long-term development. “We don’t chase the money, we focus on the talent being survivable over interests, or tastes, or passion,” said Roberts. The dealer, who has been in the business for more than three decades and garnered a reputation for sourcing young talent with staying power, said when he began dealing Kehinde Wiley’s work in 2000 at the start of his career, “none of this happened so quickly,” referring to auction hype driving up value. “It was very difficult. We had many days that we really had to fight the prejudices,” said Roberts.
Opening the auction in a crucial moment was American artist Titus Kaphar’s portrait of a woman haloed in red thread from his “Vesper Project” series; it saw advance bidding and sparked strong momentum to sell for $187,500, more than four times its estimate of $40,000, and set a new auction record for the artist. Kaphar’s work has spiked demand following several recent milestones: he was the featured cover artist on Time magazine’s June protest issue; his 2020 painting Braiding Possibility sold privately at Gagosian’s this past May, at a price of $300,000; and Kaphar saw a new auction record set just this week with the sale of Jerome ProjectT (“Asphalt and Chalk”), a 2015 drawing, for $131,250, smashing its estimate of $20,000 to $30,000.
Another new artist record was set when 44-year-old Tehran-born painter Ali Banisadr’s large-scale 2013 painting Motherboard went for $572,000, within its estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It eclipsed the $557,000 taken by Banisadr’s 2011 canvas The Chase in a Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Doha sale in October 2014, where the work more than doubled its high estimate of $250,000.
Another moment in the sale when an emerging artist crossed a new threshold was the sale of American painter Robert Nava’s menacing 2019 diptych The Tunnel. Less than a year old, the work featuring a pair of red eyes and a black grimace saw bids sail past its high estimate of $60,000, to more than double at $162,000.